Breakthrough discoveries highlighted as top biomedical advances of 2015

Van Andel Research Institute scientists play key role in findings

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Dec. 14, 2015)—The explanation of how a promising drug “tricks” cancer cells into dying and a discovery that may one day lead to new ways to repair the human heart have been hailed as “notable advances of 2015” by Nature Medicine, one of the world’s top medical research journals.

Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) scientists played key roles in these findings, which were detailed in three papers originally published in the journal Cell earlier this year. Nature Medicine’s list, which is comprised of 10 categories, included citations for 24 papers – a small fraction of the thousands published annually by scientific journals worldwide. The accolades come during a time of exceptional growth and discovery at the Institute, which has recruited several top-tier scientists and significantly expanded its research programs and collaborations in recent years.

“These findings may significantly impact how we treat two of the most pressing health concerns of our time—cancer and heart disease,” said David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute. “It is our hope that these breakthroughs will lead to new therapies to better combat these devastating conditions, providing a pathway to healthier and longer lives for patients.”

In a pair of complementary studies, scientists demonstrated how certain anti-cancer drugs called demethylating agents trick cancer cells to behave as though they are infected with a virus or other pathogen. This “viral mimicry” leads to cell death, decreasing the number of cancer cells and improving the effectiveness of other treatments, such as chemo- and immunotherapies. VARI’s Research Director, Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc., was a contributing author on one of the studies, which was led by Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and University of Toronto’s Daniel De Carvalho, Ph.D. Stephen Baylin, M.D., who holds a joint appointment at VARI and at Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, was the corresponding author on the other paper.

In June, scientists moved closer to developing therapies that help the heart repair itself, with a finding that there is some cellular turnover of heart muscle cells, although the total number of cells remains stable. Unlike many cells elsewhere in the body, heart muscle cells do not have a high turnover rate, meaning that the organ doesn’t heal after an injury like a heart attack. The study provides scientists with crucial information for developing therapies that jump-start the heart’s ability to heal itself, preventing the need for invasive surgeries or lifelong drug regimens that don’t actually repair the damage. The work was led by Stefan Jovinge, M.D., Ph.D., director of the DeVos Cardiovascular Research Program (a collaboration between VARI and Spectrum Health), and collaborators at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.



Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent nonprofit biomedical research and science education organization committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VAI has grown into a premier research and educational institution that supports the work of more than 330 scientists, educators and staff. Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research division, is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translating those findings into effective therapies. The Institute’s scientists work in onsite laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®


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